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The Nature Of Reality




So I’m doing my daily 45 minute morning commute to work in heavy interstate traffic and I am wondering “What is the nature of reality?” That is, what is emptiness? Am I ever going to be able to realize it except on an intellectual level? Let me share some of what wound through this ever active mind:


Emptiness is the true nature of reality according to Buddhist teaching. It is the absolute truth (there is also relative truth but that’s boring) I have always thought it’s the most important idea in Buddhism and the most difficult to grasp.


Here is an exposition of it:


“The nature of reality is totally free. Therefore anything can arise, anything can be transformed, and anything can manifest. There are no restrictions at all. This is how things appear. In reality…nothing solidly exists at all—not the tiniest tip of a rabbit hair truly exists as a solid object. Everything is totally open and in the state of emptiness. Yet while there is not even one single hair of anything that is solid, concrete, and unchangeable, everything can appear and be transformed. Everything can be everything. That is how nature is.” Kenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche


“..awareness of nowness is actually the Buddha..” – Dudjom Tersar Ngondro


I have a video series of lectures on Buddhism by a professor who said, in illustrating emptiness, that it had been said that no one steps in the same stream twice. He said, in trying to relate this to emptiness in the Buddhist sense, no one steps in the same stream even once. In other words, nothing exists as a solid object at all not even from one second to the next.


This means - On the absolute level of reality, there is no self, there is no karma, there is no reincarnation, no lamas and there are no buddhas. There is no..(we can go on and on ). People do seem to forget this. I could bring this up in the discussion group one day and it would open a huge can of worms. Maybe one day I will be so bold.


“Everything can be everything” = non-dualism. It is the whole and therefore this is a true statement – only from that viewpoint.


Friends at the Dharma Center who think “they” are going to go to a “Pure Land” when they die or aspire to going to a Pure Land – I say no, that is not it (I heard a nun say this with a big smile on her face). That’s because there is no self. There is no solidly existing “you”. “Nothing solidly exists at all” Nothing means nothing, and that includes you, your Self. Do you listen to what the Kenchen, your own teacher, said? No solidly existing thing anywhere. You cannot make a statement that “you” are going somewhere after you die. It can’t be, because there is really no “you”. Who is going there? Ramana Maharshi (a Hindu) understood this perfectly. When his students were very upset that Maharshi was dying, he said “Where am I going to go? I am here.” There cannot be a statement like “I want to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime” that makes sense in light of the teachings on emptiness. There is no "I".


The great second century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said:


“Whatever is dependently arisen (that’s everything, folks!) is unceasing, unborn, unannihilated, not perfect, not coming, not going, without distinction, without identity, and free from conceptual construction.” --Nagarjuna – The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (my bolding)


Who is the “I”? Furthermore, what is enlightenment?


These are large questions, beyond the scope of this short blog entry.


There seems to be this idea in the Dharma Center that enlightened people never lose their temper, they are passive, friendly, giving, they don’t get mad and they always have this stone like self-control. They are always compassionate and love everyone, they don’t get angry and are always doing good deeds for other people. This is a sort of unspoken expectation. I think that this is a wrong view. I don’t say everyone there has it, but those who do don’t really listen to what their teachers or the teachings say.


"Awareness of nowness is the Buddha." Nowness, that is, the present moment. Dudjom Rinpoche had it right with that statement. The Buddha is not a god and not a person. We ALL can do this kind of awareness for short periods of time. Then the conceptual mind kicks into high gear and we start thinking about tomorrow, our plans, or the past, or what somebody said or did. Then we are gone.


It is simply folly to try to label reality, tame it or confine it in any way. Unfortunately, we have the label –“Buddhist.” Oh, the perils of organized religion.



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Yes, Rev, I should. It's too bad it takes me two days to think of a reply to something that someone says! Nevertheless, the time will come. There is too much sweetness and light over there - too much unreality. And they don't listen to their own teachers. Not when it comes to this subject.

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I can already hear the possible responses, of course, one of the most likely "we can't discuss that without the lama being here." I have heard others brushed off with the "we aren't qualified" answer.


I like the place, its just now and then I am thinking why doesn't anyone discuss emptiness or the prajnaparamitra sutras? I am prone to second-guessing myself and cautious of falling into or even appearing to hold a fundamentalist position of "I know and you don't." Perhaps that is also what holds me back. I really hate to be seen that way. I have to wait for the proper time and think about how to say it.

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People will always fall back to what is easier to do, which is to maintain an identity through substitutions. They look to symbols (the Dali Lama - the Pope, the Bible, who have you), to elevate as closer to that which ultimately is their own final end - that emptiness of themselves into their true Nature. You said yourself, "That is, what is emptiness? Am I ever going to be able to realize it except on an intellectual level?"


It is too easy to substitute a metaphysics, theories, arguments, apologetics, systems, affiliations, self-identities, all of them from that emptying of all self identity into the Self, the Witness of everything, and then into Spirit itself, into Godhead. We avoid the end of self, we create substitutes, actions representing that death of self, but never resulting in that release.


Is it easy? As easy as letting go of our ideas of being alive. Why is it that existential crisis awakens into That? We die.

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Thank you Antler. Yes, we would rather do anything than face the emptiness - the no self. All manner of substitutions are made but to me, the emptiness is the core of what makes the Buddhist teachings different than others. He said clearly there is no permanent self. On the absolute level there are no attributes. So, when I hear someone say "I want to go, or I plan to go, to Dewachen (a Pure Land) when I die." I hear "I want to go to heaven". No difference. I think that kind of statement is misleading.


If there is no solidly existing "I", then who is going there? If it is something like mental tendencies, something that is part of what makes up the self, then how is it entirely you? The brain crafts a continuity and a self over time. I think that is what happens. We cannot see that this is crafted - its just "me".


It would be perfectly possible to come from, say, Roman Catholicism to Tibetan Buddhism and be right at home. You have authority figures, you have a sort of worshipful environment, statues, the idea of merit, hells and heavens and a lot of symbols that seemingly correspond. You could carry on with this substitution, but what is it all really going to do to make you more aware?

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(I hope this doesn't get too long, but I love your blog, and I love Asian history, and this just tickles all the right neurons, for me. So much to think about, here.)


It's interesting that you compare Tibetan Buddhism to Catholicism. That's such a great point. There's a lot of common ground, in terms of the "trappings" and showmanship, really, of the religions. With Catholicism, the showiness of it, the authority figures are there because of the concept of intercession. It's fine to pray to Mary, or St. Anthony, or fix yourself on the image of any number of things that are not God. This gives people an outlet - a sort of psychological "crumple zone" between themselves and a vision of the divine that would otherwise be too uncompromising and stark (being monotheist, and all). You can still worship your old Gods if you make them Saints...


In Tibetan Buddhism, and Pure Land sects, there's a similar "crumple zone" established to insulate people from the starkness inherent in the teachings, and that's the belief in reincarnation. It's fine if you fix yourself on Amida, or Guan-yin or any number of other images or beliefs between you and Void, because you'll get plenty of other chances at enlightenment. Because of reincarnation, you don't need to be "more aware" this time around, just do your best, and sometimes there's such a thing as "close enough."


Oddly, this gives some sects of Buddhism a rather high potential for violence, since people will get as many chances as they need. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically, the authority figures are important, because they are also political ones. Tibet's religious civil wars were a very long time ago, though - about the same time as the Battle of Hastings. Long story short, that's why the Dalai Lama is considered so important to the Tibetan government in exile. Traditional Tibet is as close to a pure theocracy as human history has ever produced.


Funny story: there used to be a Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall just a couple blocks away, and we'd get all the lazy ones who didn't want to go too far to spread the word. Then, they had to close up shop, and the place was empty for a while. Now, though... it's Tibetan Buddhists!! The monks are super-nice and laid back. Not pushy or arrogant at all (reincarnation: why bother trying too hard to convert people, they've got plenty of chances to get it right). I'm glad that they seem to be doing really well, and they got a statue of Guan-yin in the front. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, my cousins' Catholic church has a huge Vietnamese population, and the church got a statue of "the Virgin Mary" - standing on a lotus bloom, and entwined with a river dragon... *cough* totally Guan-yin *cough*


That said, though, there's other sects of Buddhism that do have a far more direct approach. Zen Buddhism doesn't really have the frills and elaborations that Tibetan Buddhism does. It caught on like it did in Japan with the warrior class because they could have a religion that wasn't affiliated with powerful private armies (the Pure Land sects and some others became serious war machines, in Japan during their age of civil wars). If a warrior was Zen Buddhist, then they could remain independent of the Spear-monks. Also, given that their lifestyle often involved facing death in a very immediate and direct way, they found that Zen's approach really meshed well with that psychological need to acknowledge the impermanence of things, and the ultimate immateriality. Where Tibetan Buddhism swaths the Void in layers of rich symbolism, Zen is all about approaching it head-on. Of course, this is why Zen didn't really spread like other sects of Buddhism did. It can be really stark, uncompromising, and uncomfortable, and that's sort of the point.


I think, of all the religions out there, though, Buddhism, as a philosophical system, really has the most "ring of truth" to me. When it comes down to brass tacks, it comes the closest to realizing the scale of reality, and humanity's place in it, individually, and in terms of our cultures and systems.

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Thanks Ex-C.  I do think there are many parallels between Tibetan Buddhist practice and Catholicism although speaking as a former Protestant I am no expert on Catholicism!


For one thing, Tibetan Buddhists pray for the dead like Catholics do. They do mantras almost like masses for people who have passed away. It strikes me as very Catholic Christian. Although I don't think it really does anything for the dead person, but I think its kind of cool for some reason. I guess I never liked the Protestant view that heaven was a sure thing for a believer so if they were dead it was like automatic. How could anyone know for sure?


All of this is a little strange though, since Buddhists don't have a God like the Christian one, - well, maybe its close though.  There is the "primordial Buddha" Kuntuzangpo - which is about as close as you can get to God, I think.


The reincarnation doctrine is interesting. You should read "The Words of My Perfect Teacher" by Patrul Rinpoche. It might change the way you think about reincarnation.  The actual Tibetan view of the afterlife is complex.  If you screw up and waste this life, or engage in criminal activities, it may be eons in a hell realm or in one of the lower realms (animal or hungry ghost) before you get another opportunity.


Reincarnation brings to mind another Catholic parallel - the concept of "merit". In Tibetan Buddhism you can "accumulate merit" and also give it away. Perhaps its a stretch, but sounds a bit like the old Catholic indulgence - except thankfully actual money isn't involved but just numerous recitations of prayers and mantras.


In closing, I will just say that Buddhism is fascinating to study and practice. I like (1)  the emphasis on suffering as a negative thing and as a fact of existence.  I believe that is a true picture of life. So, it has the emphasis on this life, in a way. (2) the rituals and rich symbolism.


As you have observed, monks are laid back.  The lama seems very laid back where I attend. In fact, I have nothing negative to say about him personally.  

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